By PATRICK HUNTER
There are times when you think you can predict with some certainty that some governments in the Caribbean would balk at taking any decision that has the potential to rub the European colonizers the wrong way. So, it came as a bit of a pleasant shock when the CARICOM heads of government agreed recently to pursue reparations for “native genocide and slavery”.
Reparations for slavery is not a new discussion. It has, however, largely been confined to activists in the African Diaspora without governments providing much, if any, support or input.
In the 1990s the Organization for African Unity established the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP), which included Dudley Thompson and Chief M.K. Abiola of Nigeria. This resulted in what became known as the Abuja Declaration (1993) at the First Pan-African Conference on Reparations held in Abuja, Nigeria.
That declaration, in part, “Calls on the international community to recognize that there is a unique and unprecedented moral debt owed to the African peoples which has yet to be paid – the debt of compensations to the Africans as the most humiliated and exploited people of the last four centuries of modern history.”
The Declaration continues:
“Calls upon Heads of States and Governments in Africa and the Diaspora itself to setup National Committees for the purpose of studying the damaged Black experience, disseminating information and encouraging educational courses on the impact of enslavement, colonization and neo-colonialism on present-day Africa and its Diaspora.”
These and other urgings of the GEP went largely unsupported world-wide. One Congressman in the United States, for example, has tried for years to have Congress establish such a Committee or Commission.
The 2001 World Conference on Racism gave the reparations discussion, particularly in the Diaspora, new impetus.
A few years ago, the Jamaican government decided to take up the issue. It created the National Commission on Reparations, headed up by the late Barry Chevannes, a professor at the University of the West Indies. Its purpose was to solicit input from Jamaicans, at home and abroad, on the matter of reparations. Somewhere along the road, the Commission ran out of steam – one assumes through the politics of what is affordable – and the work was incomplete.
The current government of Jamaica announced last year that it would re-establish the commission. But, as I wrote in a February column, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller almost immediately stabbed at the heart of the supposedly reconstituted commission by saying that it would not be seeking financial compensation but would apparently be satisfied with an apology.
Nevertheless, very little seems to have been done since that announcement, including an updating of the Commission’s website since 2009.
The adoption of this plan by the heads of governments of CARICOM to move this issue forward represents a significant hurdle, but only the first of many. That plan calls for the establishment of national reparations committees in each of the member states. Some states have already done that.
The next step of putting the plan into action is another significant stage. And, if the Jamaican example is anything to go by, it will be a very challenging one. The fact that Jamaica is not one of the five heads of government – chaired by Barbados – appointed to provide political oversight of the CARICOM Reparations Commission speaks volumes. Jamaica could be a weak link.
One of the early criticisms of announcement comes from the Pan Afrikan Reparations Coalition of Europe (PARCOE) which has concerns over the “top-down” approach being prescribed, although they are happy that there is movement.
Another of their concerns is the fact that the heads of government have “enlist the services” of the law firm, Leigh Day and Company, which was instrumental in negotiating the recent reparations for the Mau Mau of Kenya. In an open letter to the CARICOM heads of government, PARCOE writes of Leigh Day & Co.:
“…is one of those firms who have a visibly obnoxious track record of misrepresentation, sabotage and destruction of cases of historical and contemporary wrongs germane to reparations for Afrikans and people of Afrikan descent.”
I would certainly have liked to see the establishment of an advisory committee of persons who have considerable history in the reparations movement – such as David Comissiong of Barbados and Verene Shepherd of Jamaica – and who could provide clear objectives and guidelines as to how to proceed, and to help establish clear demands and methods of compensation. To lock in a law firm this early in the process may have the tendency to limit the demands and goals to what appears winnable through legal proceedings.
As it is, there has not been much information released at this point as to timelines and scope. Hopefully, all this will be developed and activated in a timely manner.